The Sight of Blood: Vision, Violence, and the Temple in Etruscan Etruria


On the topics of sacred space and temple decoration in ancient Etruria, there is both much to say and much that can be deduced. For instance, what is the Greek relationship and how does it manifest itself in the construction of Etruscan temples? Secondly, what is the meaning, ultimately, of temple figural decoration, namely the Seven Against Thebes cycle? And last, how does the Etruscan concept of the gods and divination effect their interaction with and perception of the temple? This paper aims to explore these questions through the case study of the Talamone temple pediment, its relationship to other objects of the same subject matter, such as ash urns and the Pyrgi temple pediment plaque. The goal of this paper is to show that the Etruscan state of being in the midst of a strong supernatural sense of threatening forebodings and fearsome gods was so strong as to warrant the depiction of both the suffering of a father whose sons have fallen at their own hands and the dangers of this fighting angering the gods. Simply put, the Etruscan practice of divination, prophecy of the future, is inextricable bound up with both funerary art and that which presents a moralizing warning about actions, namely violence that will anger the gods. The Talamone temple pediment is just that, a two-fold catalyst to a prophecy of the future for Etruscans wanting to ensure a positive afterlife by placating the gods and not enacting violence, and a play on the basic concept of prophecy by depicting Oedipus central to a scene in which attention to divination and the god’s will would have preventing the blood shed of the two brothers.

As to the temple pediment itself from Talamone, which is from the middle of the second century BCE, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence, and was found in relatively great condition on a hill overlooking the western coast of Italy from a temple of unknown dedication. The pediment depicts in terracotta sculpture the tale of Seven against Thebes, in particular the aftermath of the battle between the brothers Eteokles and Polynices.[1] The saga goes that the twin brothers were left control of the city of Thebes after the death of or stepping down of their father Oedipus from the throne and that they were to share the throne by trading off years. But human nature intervened and the brothers were perpetually at each other’s throats with jealousy, their Uncle Creon could barely keep them apart and could certainly not maintain a cordial relationship between them. Eventually Eteokles time on the throne came and passed and he showed no intention of vacating the throne to his brother according to the agreement that the two had. Forthwith, Eteokles exiled his brother Polynices from the city and proceeded to reign solo. The exiled Polynices sought refuge at Argos with the hope that the Argive king, Adrastus might help him in his situation. As he approached the city he stumbled upon another refugee, Tydeus of Calydon, who was also forced to leave is city due to an unfortunate but chance slaying of a kinsman. The two, initially unaware of each other’s identity, took up arms against each other in anticipation of combat. This drawing of swords brought out Adrastus and his men who, upon shining torch light onto the situation, illuminated the two refugees to the each other showing them that they were not enemies and that more importantly the to refugees boar the depictions of a lion and a boar on their shields which fulfilled the oracle’s prophecy to Adrastus as to who would marry his daughters.

Having seen the oracle’s prophecy come true, Adrastus gratefully took Polynices into his city and took up the cause against Eteokles. Adrastus summoned together his kinsmen and allies and together there were seven captains dispatched united into battle. While each captain stormed one of each of the seven gates of Thebes, they were continuously pushed back until finally the two brothers met one another right outside of the city gates to go toe to toe against one another. Fierce and feverish fighting followed until both lay dying of their wounds. The play on sight throughout the whole of the saga is one that was certainly not lost on the Etruscans and is further emphasized by their inclusion of the scene on funerary urns and on temple pediments. The concept of sight will be explored further a bit later in the presentation. First, I would like to discuss other instances of the saga in Etruscan art and the Greek relationship with Etruscan art since the tale is Greek in origin.

Other than Talamone we have but one other temple pediment sculpture to which we can discuss the theme and the practice of temple decoration. The other example is from Pyrgi, known present as Santa Severa, and is from ca. 510-485 BCE[2] (now in the Villa Giulia in Rome). A temple, known as Temple A with an unknown dedication, once occupied the site of Pyrgi, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, with Late Archaic terracotta relief panel furnished with nail holes to be attached to a large wooden support. Though the relief was severely damaged, enough was recovered and restored to show that there were six central figures, which represent the Seven Against Thebes saga. At first some felt that perhaps this was evidence of a pedimental composition, which would have been unprecedented in Etruria prior to the second century. However, it was soon discovered that the relief was in fact rectangular and would have been positioned in the center of the pediment at Pyrgi. The relief shows the twin brothers wrestling each other on the ground with Athena to the far left looking on. Athena waits to bestow her ointment of immortality to her favorite of the two brothers. But as they wrestle in their match, the savagery of the fight is too much for her, she is so repulsed by it that refuses to give her ointment to either brother and both die.

The violence in the saga of the Seven Against Thebes seems to be the prevailing issue for why the scene is used – to warn against such violence. For as is evident in this example from Pyrgi, the violence is abhorred by the gods and may cause non-favorable action to occur, such as the denial of Athena’s ointment of immortality. The superstitions and preoccupations of the Etruscans with their gods, with staving off their repudiations and with surviving the miseries of the underworld gave their art a particular tone. In the case of the Pyrgi temple plaque and the Talamone pediment, the superstitions are expressed strongly as is the misery of what happens if the gods are not appeased. In the case of the Talamone pediment, we see the blinded Oedipus on his knees, arms raised in anguished with his sons dying in the arms of their comrades on either side of him. The horror and sadness etched into his face is the result of his sons’ failure to maintain peace and stability in Thebes. Their petty infighting and inability to share the throne resulted in the bloody war that not only caused both their deaths but; tore the city apart. In the Pyrgi example the scene is a conflation of the fighting and of the gods’ involvement. This hybridity highlights the god’s abhorrence with the debased violence displayed by Tydeos and Melanippos. Tydeos the favorite of the two men of Athena, who looks on, has his jaws savagely around he head of Melanippos and is taking a cannibalistic bite.[3] The result of this violence is their death and the destruction of the city. Had they not been so savage, so brutal, perhaps the goddess Athena would have saved at least one of them. In the Greek instances of this scene, it is not the living crown of Melanippos’ head that Tydeos sinks his teeth into, but rather the severed head that Tydeos attacks. Likewise, it is not the Greek tradition to conflate the narrative of the Theban cycle into one scene. Wherein the Greek tradition is to unfurl the narrative in a five scene tragic saga, the Etruscan


example is a moral – a stern warning that bestial savagery is abhorred by the gods and the results are nothing but destruction.[4]

The saga of the Seven Against Thebes is also carried out in funerary ash urns from the early first century and the mid-second century, and in the François tomb from 350-330 BCE. Here again the bridging of the religious with the civic cannot be ignored or overlooked and certainly bares the message of the motif. Is it a warning of a local leader with too much power or of guilty excess? Is it a message about family bonds and a warning not to spill your kin blood? It appears that all possibilities can and did exist. The Etruscans’ sense of maintaining an even keel is apparent in this motif, which warns against civil strife, family infighting, bloody wars, the disobeying of parental wishes, and excessive hubris. This acute awareness of retribution by the gods for their actions kept the Etruscans scared and loyal to their divinities and sources of divination. The gods were fearsome and needed to be placated as well as revered for their ability to help those in need. Gods imported from Greek traditions or from the East were the only gods given human form, as seen in the Pyrgi plaque example in which Athena to the left is given human form and Zeus in the center is also given human form. Local Etruscan divinities were nebulous, mysterious beings that were threatening and foreboding.[5]

Most funerary urns depicting the Seven Against Thebes saga show the interaction between brother Eteokles and Polynices. For instance, an example from the mid-second century from Chiusi (Sarteano) shows the brothers with swords in their chests, post-battle, dying in the arms of their comrades. This tends to be the norm in representing the brother’s battle in funerary examples. As seen in the François tomb, the brothers are yet again depicting at the time of battle, here we seen the thrust of the sword and the gushing of the blood – a visceral depiction of the end of the brother’s relationship and lives. This physicality is precisely what Nancy de Grummond speaks of when she notes that the brother’s motif is one that speaks to the Etruscan practice of sacrifice or as a warning against bloodletting.[6] In another mid-second century example we see the brothers to the sides and Oedipus is in the center of the frame, right hand held up similarly to his positioning in the Talamone pediment in which both his hands are raised. In the funerary urn Oedipus does not look as devastated as he does in the Talamone pediment, rather there is a stoic stillness to his frame – in the calm of his face. With that said his left hand on the hilt of his sword and his right hand extended show a move towards action. He is situated amidst his two dying sons who have brutally killed each other over the throne that he left to them. His extended hand speaks to his prophetic blindness, which in turn speaks to the prophetic nature of the scene, the motif, of the Seven Against Thebes saga in a broader context as is evident in the repetitive use of the motif in sacred and funerary architecture and urns.

Not all funerary urns depict Eteokles and Polynices, in at least one example another example from the Seven Against Thebes saga is presented: Capaneus and Tydeus at the gates of Thebes with the head of Melanippus. In the earlier example that was discussed that showed the Tydeus biting into the head of the Melanippus, but this instance shows the Tydeus holding the head of Melanippus as if to fling it over the gate or flaunt the death to the onlookers. Again, the emphasis is on the extreme violence of the saga and the flaunting of the death of Melanippus at the hands, or the mouth in some instances, of Tydeus.

Temple Model

Scholars have noted the similarities and the inspiration for Etruscan sculptural motifs and techniques from Greece.[7] Certainly in the case of the Pyrgi example there are correlations to Greek vase painting which has lead Otto Brendel to note that there was a strong relationship of influence and inspiration from the Greeks to the Etruscans that not only took the form of motifs traveling across to Italy but also the transition of medium as well.[8] For instance, the Pyrgi example, which Brendel argues, is extremely similar to Greek vase painting, but appears in Etruria as a terracotta relief, thereby signaling a transfer of motif and the adaption to a new medium of local significance and use. As for the Talamone example the closed pediment is certainly a draw from the Greeks who have full pedimental sculpture on their temples. This shift in Etruria from open pediments with just a central plaque, to a closed pediment is perhaps a sign of fuller Hellenization of Etruscan Etruria or a reflection of Etruscan temple frontality. It is noted that more or less every city in Etruria, either in the League or Roman colonies, adopted first Greek traditions and then Roman traditions for pedimental decoration, this in turn gave the temples a more Hellenized look. It seems that perhaps there was a religious shift in the second century as well that reflects a less individualized religious devotion and a more universal religious piety. This may very well explain why the Seven Against Thebes theme is expanded into a closed pediment, due to its universality and broadly reaching message, the new universal religious dogma may have capitalized on the breadth of the motif and the ability to be widely applied.

The inclusion of the motif in temples, tombs, and funerary urns lends itself to a reading related specifically to death or the warning of death. The correlation of temple plan, tomb plans, and houses is note worthy and may hold a key to unpacking the importance of sacred spaces and this particular motif in Etruscan culture and religion.[9] For instance, Etruscan dwellings were often replicated in the shape of hut urns and tombs – oval structures with pitched roofs, rectangular structures with axial symmetry. This replication also extends to the construction of and the plan of temples. A strong sense of axial symmetry, a single entrance, a pitched roof, rectangular form, are all seen in tombs, temples, and houses. In the case of temples and tombs, there is also often a replication of the tripartite structural form that was popular among temple structures.

The directional differences between Greek and Etruscan temples consists of their strong difference in their sense of vision – Greek examples have a circular sight plan allowing for and asking for the viewer, the participant to move around the structure, and accommodating such movement with decoration that completely encompasses all sides and all angles of the space. This is not the case in Etruria in which the temple is designed on an axial plan, with one entrance, and a strong demarcated sense of frontality. Even with the presence of sculpture on the roofs of many Etruscan temples, the sculptures’ gaze never meets the viewer from the sides, rather their coyness forces the viewer, the participant to move to the front of the temple, to engage the space head on. This is most prominently noticed in the difference in the floor plans of the structures.

Axel Boethius notes that Etruscan temples had external terracotta decoration in the Greek style, but apart for external decoration the Etruscans diverge from the Greek tradition and craft their own tradition for temple construction.[10] Some typical features of Etruscan temples are: a spacious colonnaded pronai in front of the entrance to the temple, entrance only on the front of the temple, the use of flights of stairs or ramps in the front of the temple, the use of a podium as temple foundation. In Greek temples, the colonnade wrapped around the entire temple rather than just in the front or in the front and on the lateral sides as in Etruscan temples. Furthermore Greek examples do not have pronais as extensive as the Etruscan examples, this lack of Greek pronais and the presence of Etruscan pronais suggest difference not just in architecture but also in use and purpose. Whereas the Greeks were more interested in interior temple space, the Etruscan examples indicate an eternal ceremonial space that was for public performance or to allow for public demonstration or ceremony. The implementation of a spacious colonnaded pronai and the single entrance point are said by scholars to be inextricably linked to the Etruscan religious practices and beliefs, perhaps namely the positioning of temples according to the flight paths of birds. This connection with natural phenomenological events such as bird flight patterns or sight lines, leads us to connect the Etruscan notion of space and place with that of landscape and natural power.

For instance, we can turn to Edward Said[11] and his use of Simon Schama’s work Landscape and Memory for a solid discussion on how landscape, geography, triggers both human imagination and memory. Geography can stimulate dreams, imagination, philosophy – as in the case of Heidegger’s Holzwege – music, fiction, poetry, so on and so forth.[12] Similarly, we can not that buildings, cities, streets, even natural landscapes can be overlain or even overgrown by symbolic association that can totally obscure the reality of the space or the place with symbolic meaning and associations. Said uses Jerusalem as his example as to how the concept of Jerusalem has overgrown the city itself and are now inextricably linked. While Etruria is by no means being made to be parallel to Jerusalem, the general construct fits. The notion of the Etruscan sacred space has grown out from the temple and seeped into the domestic and funerary spheres to conflate them together in one continuous narrative of the sacred in the Etruscan culture. This may be a bit nebulous to apply fully to the Etruscans, but the general conception of how symbolic a landscape can be within a society is certainly a valid one, and could help us understand the importance of place as space and space as place and the ways in which that affects those who utilize them. The replicating of the temple structure in a hut urn or the thatched roof of a home or temple is not by accident and need not be dismissed off the cuff. The replication is intentional and is meant to convey the importance of the sacred space in all places of the Etruscan life.

This association to land and to the sacred is further defined for us by Mircea Eliade who notes that, “men are not free to choose the sacred site, that they only seek for it and find it by the help of mysterious signs.”[13] This is certainly the case in Etruria where natural phenomenon served as the catalyst for the construction of the sacred within the profane. Furthermore, Eliade notes that in cases of the construction of the sacred space, the hierophany, the sacred, nullifies the homogeneity of the space to real a fixed point – the temple, the tomb, the sacred.[14] Since man, as Eliade notes, cannot live within a space that has not been impregnated with the sacred then we can expect to see numerous instances of the sacred within a society for the religious. Thereby applying this to the Etruscans, we can see that the Etruscan homogeneity of domestic, religious, and funerary space leads us to conclude that the Etruscans desired to live in a sanctified world, a sacred space at all times. The Etruscan preoccupation to maintaining a certain relationship with the gods and to secure a certain afterlife solidifies this notion and is in turn solidified by it.

We have examined how the positioning of sagas warning against violence find their way into the whole of the Etruscan culture and the effect this has on notion of sacred space as all space in Etruscan Etruria. The relationship between the domestic and religious spheres of the Etruscan world could be beneficially organized as an instructive museum exhibition. In the Los Etruscos catalogue, the objects run the gamut of Etruscan life, but an exhibition such as the forthcoming Meadows Museum show, which has focused the objects to show a relationship between the temple and the tomb can easily be shifted to show the all encompassing nature of the sacred in Etruscan culture.

Having examined the influences of Grecian, Roman and Orientalizing motifs and practices on the Etruscans, and how in turn these were adapted to fit the local customs and needs, we can conclude that while influenced by outside forces, Etruscan temple decoration and sacred space construction were still inflected with site specific and culturally specific customs of the Etruscans. This in turns leads us to conclude that the Etruscan preoccupation with divination and divinities and a secured afterlife led to the bleeding of sacred space into the domestic and the funerary so as to teach the practicing to mind the universal message of the whole.

[1] This paper started initially as an object analysis on the Talamone Temple Pediment. During the course of the semester the project was expanded to use the pediment as a case study to explore the relationship of the temple pediment to the temple, of the pediment’s motif to Etruscan understandings and the greater concept of the sacred in the Etruscan culture. The object analysis stems from the initial shorter project, and from the Los Etruscos exhibition catalogue from Madrid: Giuseppina Carlotta Cianferoni, Los Etruscos : Museo Arqueológico Nacional, 27 de septiembre 2007-6 de enero 2008. Madrid: Ministerio de Cultura; 2007, pp 88-89, 205.

The story of The Seven Against Thebes can be found in its entirety in: A. R. Hope Moncrieff, Classical Myth and Legend. New York: William H. Wise and Co; 1934, pp 206-209.

[2] A good discussion of Pyrgi as it relates to Talamone can be found in Gilda Bartoloni and Maja Sprenger, Robert Erich Wolf, trans, The Etruscans: Their History, Art, and Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc; 1977, pp 47. Also see, Otto Brendel, Etruscan Art. New York: Penguin Books; 1977, pp 234-237.

[3] See Brendel, pp 235-236, for a detailed reading of the Pyrgi pediment and the god’s abhorrence of the actions taken by Tydeos.

[4] Brendel, pp 237.

[5] Raymond Bloch, Etruscan Art. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1965, pp 46.

[6] Nancy de Grummond, Etruscan myth, sacred history and legend. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; 2006, pp 176.

[7] See, Brendel, pp 236. Also see, Raymond Bloch, pp 45-71, for discussion of the similarities of Greek and Etruscan sculpture as well as the uniqueness’s of Etruscan examples.

[8] Brendel, pp 236.

[9] For a discussion on the similarities between tomb, temple, and house design see, Axel Boëthius, Etruscan and Early Roman Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press; 1970.

[10] Boëthius, 35-37.

[11] Edward Said, “Invention, Memory, and Place” in Landscape and Power, W. J. T. Mitchell, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1994, pp 241-260.

[12] Said, pp 246-247.

[13] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company; 1959, pp 28-29.



Filed under Art, Art History, Culture, History, Religion

3 responses to “The Sight of Blood: Vision, Violence, and the Temple in Etruscan Etruria

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